Thursday, January 01, 2009

Characters of the Early Usus Antiquior and Reform of the Reform Movement: Don Siro Cisilino, San Simeon Piccolo and Venice


For some while since the release of the motu proprio, it has been my intent to explore some of the earlier figures of the usus antiquior and reform of the reform movement. I am particularly interested in the stories of individual diocesan priests in the days before Ecclesia Dei and especially before the original 1984 Indult, or those who promoted the principles and activities of the reform of the reform before a "reform of the reform movement" had even crystallized as an identifiable movement. (Those who would like to make suggestions in these regards are welcome to do so by email.)

Evidently these chronicles, particularly given the times in which they occurred, have the potential to raise some points of debate and disagreement about particular approaches or methods of the individuals in question. Was an individual "rebellious" and "stubborn" in the face of authority or were they "courageous", "steadfast" and a "pioneer" in the face of a tumultuous and problematic set of circumstances? Similar points can be made about the local authorities who are invariably tied up with these stories. Did they commit injustices or act imprudently and unfairly, or were they doing what they thought the Church needed them to do in accord with their ecclesial responsibilities? This is the dilemma of all history of course.

However, the focus of this series (if it indeed is able to turn into that) is not to pass commentary or judgement upon these sorts of questions as they pertain either to individuals or even particular acts. In fact, the intent is to stay quite away from that as it is arguable that we are in no position to do so since we do not necessarily know all the facts and cannot possibly speak of internal motivations or the particular circumstances. We shall allow history and especially the Church itself to make those assessments and determinations. Instead, the desire is simply to chronicle some of the early individuals of these movements.

With regard to the usus antiquior movement, in the light of the recent papal clarification and judgement that "this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted" (Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops of the World to Present the "Motu Proprio" on the Use of the Roman Liturgy prior to the Reforms of 1970, July 7, 2007) these individuals, their circumstances and their actions surely take on some deeper historical interest and nuances.

With regard to the earlier reform of the reform movement, their activities relate to an additional attempt to re-engage broader parish life with the Council and our liturgical tradition in another context and at a time when there was an even greater reactivity to these things as being somehow "anti-conciliar".

Of course, we should also be aware of the fact there are linkages and common threads here. For example, the activities of priests involved in the early usus antiquior movement are also a matter of interest for the reform of the reform. After all, a basic premise of the reform of the reform has been rooted in evaluations made in the light of the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the history of the development of the liturgy, further confirmed by the thought of the likes of Msgr. Klaus Gamber and then Cardinal Ratzinger; that premise being that the reforms to the Roman liturgy which followed the Council arguably went beyond the mandate of the Council and intent of the Council Fathers, creating something of a discontinuity that needs to be addressed. The activities of these early individuals involved in the usus antiquior would certainly seem to be rooted in, driven and motivated by precisely the same premise.

With that introduction then, we begin with an individual we have mentioned before on the NLM, Don Siro Cisilino.

Don Siro Cisilino and the Usus Antiquior in Venice

Most of us are familiar with the Venetian church of San Simeon Piccolo in its FSSP context. Today, that church is served by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. One might think that this is where the history of the usus antiquior in this church begins, but it is not in fact so.

It has been mentioned previously upon the NLM that the history of the usus antiquior in this church is tied up with the person of Don Siro Cisilino, a musicologist who pursued the celebration of the usus antiquior until his death in 1987.

His story comes from a time prior to Ecclesia Dei adflicta -- indeed, he died before that first motu proprio -- and extends even before and a few years after the original "indult" of 1984, Quattour Abhinc annos.

Recently the NLM had a memoir written of Don Siro Cisilino translated from the original Italian, which was written by one who knew him. I have chosen to include only the sections which pertain to Don Cisilino's own history and that of the church of San Simeon Piccolo.

Don Siro Cisilino (1903-1987) and the ‘Tridentine’ Mass in Venice
by Paolo Zolli


From 1965 onwards, the life of Don Siro was not peaceful: he had to leave the church where he had celebrated Mass until then and was forced to celebrate without scheduled times for Mass. The Lefebvre affair, beginning in 1976 and with which Don Siro had no part, caused even greater caution... on the part of those who had given hospitality (that is, to celebrate Mass) and Don Siro had been welcomed by the Benedictines of Isola di San Giorgio, where he could celebrate in the chapel of the Dead. He received a discrete and courteous welcome, which it is necessary to recognize...

On the 24th July 1977 we celebrated the golden jubilee of Don Siro’s ordination, a very modest celebration, like those of the catacombs, but Mr. Carlo Durighello – with whom the Una Voce association had put me in touch – having been informed by me of the event, wished to come to play the harmonium. By one of those coincidences of circumstance in which it is difficult not to see the hand of Providence, Carlo Durighello had been granted by the diocesan authorities the use of the church of S. Simeon Piccolo for musical performances. It had previously been closed for worship, but Don Siro had celebrated Mass there many years previously, before the reform. In the months that followed, Carlo Durighello convinced Don Siro to re-begin Mass there. I know that among the Venetian diocesan authorities there is the idea – not absurd in itself – that Durighello had asked for the church of S. Simeon under the pretext of holding concerts in order to reopen it for traditional worship. But in reality, I can state that later events were casual, or rather were providential and were not premeditated, since it all came about because a few days before Don Siro’s anniversary I met Durighello and told him about it. Then one thing led to another: the ways of Providence are infinite. I do not know if in August 1977 there was already Mass at S. Simeon. I can only say that there was a great deal of discussion over leaving the safe environment of San Giorgio for the new and uncertain location, but I can confirm that in my diary for the 13th November 1977 there is still Mass at S. Giorgio, while for the 20th of November, I find written there that Mass was at S. Simeon in conjunction with the annual reunion of the National Council of Una Voce. (c.f. “Una Voce Notiziario” 40-41, 1977, p.22-23) Soon afterwards, the regular celebration of Vespers resumed.

A few months later the blow fell. A letter from Cardinal Albino Luciani of 20th February 1978 prohibited “the celebration, under any title, of Mass more antiquo in the church of S. Simeon Piccolo, as in all the territory of the diocese” and.. allowed Don Siro “the faculty to celebrate Holy Mass more antiquo only in his own home.” ... The same Cardinal Luciana... in the “Rivista diocesana del Patriarcato di Venezia” (April-May 1987, p.167) in a note from the Diocesan Curia recalls: “Recently the Patriarch forbade the celebration of the so-called Mass of St. Pius V at S. Simeon Piccolo, which had become, a meeting place ‘reclaimed’ by the Una Voce movement, despite protests from the parish priest, assistant and other members of the faithful.” Despite the subtlety of the phrase ‘meeting place’, it must be noted that the phrase “in all the territory of the diocese” has been dropped. (Anyone who wishes to go through all the details of this painful episode could reread the account “L’inutile persecuzione” published in “Una Voce Notiziario”, 42-43, 1978, p.14-19 and republished by Carlo Belli “Altare deserto”, Roma, G.Volpe, 1983, p.75-88.) Here it is enough to recall that amidst these vicissitudes, Don Siro returned to celebrating at S. Giorgio.

The death of Paul VI the following July, the brief pontificate of Albino Luciani [John Paul I], the double sede vacante of Rome and Venice, permitted a return to celebrations at S. Simeon. An event of major importance in the subsequent years was the celebration in that church by Mgr. Lefebvre on the 7th April 1980 and the whole story (of these events) was given to the press at that time.

Successive years saw the death of Carlo Durighello, with the consequent problem of retaining the church, yet the celebration of Mass continued regularly. On the 2nd September 1984, on returning from holiday, I found that Don Siro had aged rapidly: with his advanced years, the severe battles of twenty difficult years had undermined his strength. A little later he returned to his native Friuli, where he passed away, as already said, on the 4th March 1987.


From “Una Voce Notiziario”, 79-80, 1987, p.8-11.
English translation by Fr. GS

(Don Siro Cisilino, 1903-1987)

The Bishop of Udine celebrated the funeral Mass of Don Siro Cisilino.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: